Bagwell seems fascinated with the women drawn to the charismatic Charles Stuart. Charles II, the Restoration King, suffers the indignity of failure against Oliver Cromwell’s superior military might at the disastrous Battle of Worcester, hiding in the countryside until assisted by the noble Lang family and led in disguise to the coast.
Jane Lane, twenty-five, plans to visit a friend, the perfect cover for subterfuge, Charles Stuart dressed as her manservant for the journey. The impressionable and virginal girl gets caught up in the spirit of their mission, buoyed by the young royal’s amorous attentions, her virginity soon forfeit to passion. (At twenty-one, Charles has already cut a wide swath through the ladies who cross his path, a fact Jane will only belatedly come to appreciate.)
After heady nights of secret trysts, danger and near-discovery, Jane grieves her separation from Charles. Quietly returning home, she is forced to flee when her part in Stuart’s escape is discovered. Following Charles to France, Jane is reunited with him in exile, expecting the continuance of their affair only to discover their historic journey to save England’s future monarch has ushered in years of frustrated passion, from the poverty and meanness of exile to the triumphant return to England. The heady romance and the loss of an unborn child looms large in Jane’s memory, Charles consumed with a court in exile and preparations for recruiting troops to challenge Cromwell.
Bagwell’s strength is in her attention to detail, capturing the drama of Stuart’s passage from shameful defeat to exiled royal in a foreign country, Cromwell’s viselike grip on the country, the sacrifices of those loyal to the monarchy, and England’s agonizing wait for the pomp and glory that the Restoration brings to the throne. Her weakness—depending on the tastes of the reader—is a penchant for romanticism, the distraction of amorous segues describing Jane’s lusty appetites. For this reader, such emphasis makes it impossible to take Jane Lane seriously. If Jane pays dearly for her decision to cast off innocence for sexual intimacy with a man who will be king, so does her family for their part in Stuart’s safe delivery to France. But Jane’s obsession with Stuart’s other mistresses dilutes the authenticity of her contribution to the country, her patriotism driven more by youthful infatuation and sexual awakening than understanding the breadth of her commitment.
Country-bred Jane can’t acclimate to court life, hurt by every slight, personally affronted by the king’s trysts with his lovers, of which she is only one. Spouting lines of her beloved Shakespeare, Jane constantly reframes reality, nurturing false hope, waiting for Charles to remember, regardless of the impossibility of such a match.
I appreciated the novel for Bagwell’s descriptions of the harrowing days before reaching the coast and the equally trying years before the restoration, but Jane’s chronic dissatisfaction with her situation and the king’s failure to reward her generosity becomes the stuff of boredom. An important figure, Jane is, after all, but a footnote in an extraordinary era where the larger-than-life Charles Stuart returns in triumph to claim the throne of England and the devotion of his weary subjects. If Bagwell would remove some of the romantic schlock, I think she would be an excellent chronicler of historical times.